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How to have a family meal time with a fussy eater

Family meal times used to be a daily occurrence. Everyone would sit around the dinner table at the end of the day and eat together, share stories about their day and spend quality time together.

In my article about why I prioritise family mealtimes, I explain the many benefits of eating together.

If you have a fussy eater, family meals may be a nightmare and not the way you want to spend your evenings.

But you have to remember, kids learn to eat by watching their parents eat.

If family mealtimes have fallen by the wayside for you, follow this blueprint for happy family mealtimes.

This is one of the first steps on the journey to having your child enjoy happy healthy mealtimes.

Before dinner

  • Give everyone a 5 minute warning that dinner is imminent.   “We will be eating in 5 minutes”.  You may have already noticed that telling a child who is glued to their device that dinner is nearly ready can lead to world war 3.  A hot tip is to have them doing a different, non-device activity in the lead up to dinner.  Playing outside working up an appetite is perfect, but colouring in or just playing also work better than device time.
  • If your child has any sort of sensory issue, coordination issue or hypermobility, it is good to get them to do some of their activation exercises at this point.  A great one that works for a lot of families it to set up an indoor obstacle course, with cushions, tunnels etc.  If you have a trampoline, it might be a good chance for a quick bounce.
  • Next get your child’s to wash hands.  This is obviously a good thing for hygiene. It is also a good sensory exercise, and can help calm their nervous system before dinner. In the same way that I recommend you change foods at dinner all the time, I also recommend that you change the soap, towels and water temperature for hand washing.  This also give’s your child’s sensory system a little nudge each time they wash their hands.
  • Then, ask your child to sit at the table.  If you know that getting your child anywhere near the table is a struggle, you can have some of their safe foods already sitting at the table.  This will help calm your child down.

During dinner

  • There has to be at least one adult eating with your child. Not just sitting with the child, but eating with the child. Not pretending to eat either. Kids will see right through that old trick!
  • How you serve the food is as important as what you serve.  For fussy kids, it is good to adopt a way of serving food called ‘family style serving’.  That means all the foods go in serving bowls in the middle of the table, and every helps themselves (for younger kids, you may have to help serve them).  Everyone needs to take some food from each serving bowl.  If your child can’t bear to have some of the foods on their plate, you can give them a little side plate to put the food on.  That way the food stays visible to them, but they know they don’t have to eat it.  Here’s the catch……there needs to be one of your child’s ‘safe’ foods in the serving bowl.  So if your child only eats Pringles, chicken nuggets and white pasta, there needs to be one of these foods in the middle of the table for them to eat.  That way your child stays calm, and you know they won’t go to bed hungry.
  • For the next 20-30 minutes, you sit back and enjoy the meal.  Focus more on talking and social interaction, and less on what your child is eating, if anything.  Towards the end of the meal, you can encourage your child to eat a bit more before the meal is over, but never force a child to eat.

After dinner

  • At the end of the meal – everyone helps clean up!  Ask your child to take the uneaten food from their plate and put it in the scraps bin / compost bin.  Touching the food to do this actually is a great exercise in desensitising them to the food.  This also signifies that this mealtime is over and there is no more food

If your child is a fussy eater, there are many steps to take to turn that around.  The whole child needs to be considered – their gut health, nutrient status, neurodevelopment, oral motor skills. 

It is complex. 

Need more help?

No matter what the root cause of their eating issues, having family meal times is a big step in the right direction.  If you would like to have a chat to see if my Fussy Eater program “The Fuss No More Method” might be right for your child, please book a discovery call using this link.

What are food jags and why do they matter for fussy eaters?

What are food jags

If you have a fussy eater in your family, you might have noticed that they want to eat the same food on repeat.

If your fussy eater is older enough, you may have experienced them eating the same food over and over, until one day they never look at it again!

They have burnt out on this food.  For kids without feeding issues, they will go off the food for a few weeks, then they will eat it again, but perhaps not as frequently.

For kids with feeding issues, they will never eat that food again!

This is called a food jag.

If your fussy child starts off with 10 foods that they eat, and are allowed to food jag, that number can easily get whittled down to 2 or 3 foods, and then things get really troublesome.

The good news is, now that you are aware of food jags, you can make sure this doesn’t become an issue for your child.

How to avoid food jags

To avoid food jags, you just don’t let your child eat the same food more frequently than every 2 days. If you are breaking out in a cold sweat reading this because your child only eats vegemite sandwiches, yoghurt and apples, keep reading, I have a solution.

Kids should be eating 5 times per day, with 2-3 foods served each time.  To get through 2 complete days without repeating a food, they need at least 20-25 different foods.  Many fussy eaters will have less than 10 foods in their repertoire, so we need to get creative.

Each time the preferred food is served, its sensory properties need to be changed slightly.  The change needs to be enough that the child notices (or else there is no point), but not enough that they panic and won’t eat the food.  This will very gentle challenge their sensory system every time they eat.

Take for example a child that eats vegemite on white toast for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

  • On day one, for breakfast the vegemite on toast will be cut into halves (rectangles).
  • For lunch it will be cut into halves (triangles)
  • For dinner it will be cut into quarters (squares)
  • On day two for breakfast, the vegemite on toast will be cut into quarters (triangles)
  • For lunch it will be left as one whole slice.
  • For dinner it will be one whole slice with the crusts cut off.
  • On day three you can go back to halves (rectangles).

Other ways you can change foods is by

  • Changing colour
  • Changing texture
  • Changing taste

Another frequent food I see children jagging on is potato chips of a certain flavour.  The first step to reduce their fussiness is to start serving other flavours of the potato chip.

What is so bad about food jagging

The problem with letting your child jag is that their range of tolerated foods spirals inwards.

This increases the likelihood of:

  • Them developing a food sensitivity or intolerance to the food
  • Then developing nutrient deficiencies / malnutrition
  • Gut problems due to diversity of foods
  • Anxiety about food

Who is at risk of food jagging

Any child with feeding issues has the potential to jag.  There is a higher prevalence of food jagging among children on the autism spectrum.   Children with ASD will frequently have issues with their sensory system.  Eating the same food over and over again is very easy on their sensory systems and stops them having to process new sensory information.  Children will often jag on highly processed foods, as the factory ensures they are exactly the same every single time.

Try this with your fussy eater.  Reducing food jags is one small part of my Fuss No More Method.  A 12 week program to save your sanity and reduce mealtime tantrums.  If you think this might be right for your family, book a free discovery call to learn more.

How To Get Your Kids Involved With Food

For our kids to have a healthy relationship with food, we want them to get involved with it from an early age. This can protect against fussy eating tendencies, and can even help to encourage picky eaters to try something new.

But how can you get your kids involved with food?

Here are some easy ideas to get you started.

At the shops

Many parents dread having to take their kids to the supermarket.

But if you stick to the fresh food sections and skip the soft drink and lolly aisles, it can be a great learning experience for them.

The more kids see and interact with a type of food, the more likely they are to give it a try.

You might want to send them off to pick out their options by saying ‘we need a bag of red apples’ or ‘can you pick out 3 zucchinis?’ Or you might ask them to pick between red capsicum or yellow capsicum. You can even show them some of the exotic fruit and vegetables.

Sound like a nightmare?

An easier option is to write the shopping list and weekly meal plan together. Ask questions that give them a sense of contributing such as ‘would you like apples or pears for your lunchbox this week?’

Another good option is taking the kids to the local farmer’s market. It’s a chance for them to learn what is in season and even chat to the people who grow their food! You might like to give them a small amount of cash each and pick out a few items they’d like to try.

In the garden

One of the best ways for kids to become interested in food is getting involved with the production of it.

Planting a veggie or herb garden is a simple way to do this.

You’re also less likely to have wilting bunches of fresh herbs in the fridge, so it also saves on food waste!

Depending on how old your kids are, you might get them to help pick what you’ll plant, dig the hole, plant them and water or weed them.

This is often easiest to do in the warmer months. But there are some fruits and veggies that you can plant during the winter and harvest in spring. Head to your local nursery to see what is in season.

Want to start small?

Even a window box with some herbs is a great starting point. You can plant some parsley, oregano, mint, thyme and sage. Depending on how old your kids are, they can use scissors to chop a few leaves off to add to their dinner.

In the kitchen

Kids love to help, so why not get them involved with preparing meals? Children of any age can help in the kitchen – it’s just a matter of choosing something that is age-appropriate.

If your child is still a toddler, you can give them some lettuce leaves to tear up or stir ingredients in a bowl. The older kids can work up to chopping, peeling, and eventually cooking their own meal on occasion.

Having kids in the kitchen does mean that it takes a little longer to prepare a meal. But even once or twice a month is a good starting point to get them excited about eating nutritious food.

If you have a fussy eater, getting them involved with food is just one part of the puzzle. If you need support increasing the variety of foods your child will eat, please get in touch with me today.

5 kid friendly food swaps to supercharge your child’s diet

You don’t need to revolutionise your child’s diet over night to see results. 

Instead you can make subtle, fun, food swaps to ease your child into to a more whole foods way of eating. 

These small changes will help feed the good gut bacteria living inside your child’s gut. 

Once the good gut bacteria are making decisions (instead of the not so good bacteria), your child’s cravings will change too.

Here are 5 fairly straight forward food swaps to make straight away.

1.Weetbix & Milk → Home-made muesli and real yoghurt

Sit down with a group of pre-schoolers or primary school age kids and ask them what they had for breakfast. 

About 80% of them will say weetbix with milk. 

On the plus side, if they don’t add sugar (or honey or maple syrup), they aren’t having any added sugar. 

Realistically, this is not what is happening. 

They are more likely adding enough sugar to their breakfast to make it just as bad as any presweetened cereal.  Not only that, but the gluten (in the weetbix) and the dairy are highly inflammatory foods, which is bad for kid’s brains. 

If they go on to have a sandwich at lunch and pasta at dinner, that is 3 times in the day that they are eating wheat. 

Gut bacteria love diversity, not the same food, three times a day.  Instead, get into the habit of making muesli with your kids. 

Any way you can involve your kids in the kitchen is good.  It teaches them life skills about food preparation, it gets them away from their devices, and if you can easily turn it into a maths lesson.

To make a homemade muesli, you don’t need a “recipe”.  You can make it up as you go along.

You can use some grains like rolled oats, or grain puffs like puffed amaranth, puffed quinoa, puffed brown rice etc.  Food coops or bulk health food stores are great places to pick up these ingredients.

Then add some seeds.  You can get really creative here: chia seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, hemp seeds etc.  Seeds are full of essential fatty acids and contain protein, so great for healthy brains and happy kids.

Next add some nuts.  Again, you can go crazy with combinations.  Just make sure the nuts are raw, not salted or roasted.  The problem with these isn’t so much the salt as the type of oils that are used in the process.  These are usually highly inflammatory oils like canola or sunflower.

Lastly, add some fruit.  This is where you may need to rein in your child’s creativity. 

Most kids will gravitate to adding lots of dried fruit, but you want to have the least amount possible. 

Sultanas are a good choice as they are cheap, readily available organically and do not contain sulphites. 

Sulphites are added to lots of dried fruit to maintain the colour, but there is no need to do this with sultanas as they are already dark.  Dates and figs will usually be sulphite free too. 

Choose diced fruit, not whole, so you can get a more even distribution of sweetness and not add too much. 

If you want to include apricots or apples, make sure they are sulphite free.  This may put you off adding them, as they will be quite brown. 

Make sure any dried fruit you use is real fruit which has just been dried, rather than mixed with flavours, colours and oils.

Make a big batch, enough to last for a few weeks.  Write down what you put in, and next time you can tweak it according to what you have in your cupboard, and what you liked or didn’t like about it.

Watch a video here to see how easy it is!

Serve with coconut yoghurt or real yoghurt.  If you need help choosing a ‘real’ yoghurt, this article might help

2.Rice crackers → seed crackers.

Open a packet of rice crackers and see them disappear in seconds.

And is your child full? 

Has your child eaten a single nutrient? 

Instead, make some rice crackers like these.  Sure, there is a bit of work involved in making them, and yes, they are more expensive.  But your child’s skin, gut and brain will thank you.  Expense is the reason I am suggesting you make them, not buy them, as they do work out expensive to buy them premade.

Rice crackers are extremely easily digested. 

This has 2 major knock on effects:

It means that they get a quick burst of energy, which quickly slumps again.  This is because rice crackers are very high glycemic index foods.   

It also means that by the time food reaches the large intestine, there is no food left for the gut bacteria.  The good gut bacteria die off over time, allowing the not so good guys to flourish.  This has a direct effect on mood, digestion and immunity.

Again, make the seed cracker making a family activity.  By the time they are teenagers, they will have the skills to do all this themselves.

3.Soft drinks → water kefir

There is literally no need for any child to ever have a soft drink. 

They rot teeth, send their brains into a head-spin and set them up for habits they will need to work hard to break when they grow up. 

There are so many healthy alternatives on the market. 

Kombucha is popular, and easy to find, however it is made from tea, so it contains caffeine. 

If you want to make it at home, you can use rooibos tea, and make it caffeine free.

I prefer water kefir instead.  This is not as easy to buy as kombucha, but it’s getting more popular. 

Of course, you can also make it your-self. 

You buy water kefir grains (which are entirely different to milk kefir grains, and also not an actual grain). It is a straight forward ferment, which you can experiment with as you go.  Not only will you ditch the sugar and chemicals which are in soft drinks, your child will be consuming lots of good gut bacteria (and will not be any the wiser!).

4.Fruit yoghurt → real yoghurt

One of my golden rules is never buy a food with a Disney princess on the front, and this applies especially to yoghurt. 

Yoghurt started out as the ultimate health food, which has now been ruined by the food industry.  Read any fruit yoghurt ingredient list and see how much sugar, gums and thickeners have been added. 

A child will get a big chunk of their daily maximum sugar intake in one yoghurt.  But don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. 

Real yoghurt is a great source of protein, a low GI snack and full of good gut bacteria. 

If your child doesn’t do well with dairy, you need to stick to non-dairy yoghurts, like coconut yoghurt.  I have pulled together a guide to how to choose a yoghurt , or make your own..

5.Wheat Pasta → Black bean pasta

This last swap is the easiest swap to make. 

You can now buy so many pasta alternatives like black bean pasta, lentil pasta or chickpea pasta. 

My favourite is probably the black bean pasta, as this is full of polyphenols (the dark colour of the pasta) which are super for gut health. 

This swap requires no home-cooking.

Just choose the black bean pasta off the shelf, instead of the normal wheat pasta. 

Make up some story for your kids to explain the colour, like it’s ‘Harry Potter’ pasta and you’re done.

Start making these swaps, and gradually your child’s tastes will change (as will yours!).  If you want more help to change your child’s diet, feel free to make an appointment with me and I can help!

7 small steps to take to boost your child’s mood through food this New Year
  1. Add more vegetables to their diet.

95% of Australian children are not getting enough vegetables, so I am going to assume that your child is in the 95%!  Don’t try to squeeze their five serves of vegetables into dinner.  It just won’t fit!  Spread them through the day.  If you have a serve at breakfast, a serve at sip and crunch, a serve at lunch, that only leaves 2 serves for dinner.  That is so achievable.  Lots of the recipes in my online program sneak in veggies, like blueberry and zucchini cookies or sweet potato pancakes for breakfast.  You’ll be easily hitting 5 serves per day.  Diversity is really important in your veggies.  Different vegetables give different benefits.  Download my rainbow chart and stick it on the fridge so the kids can get involved.

 

  1. Cut down the sugar.

This is a hard one, not just for the kids, but for the parents.  Sugar is bad for children’s behaviour, bad for their teeth, and bad for their metabolism.  Type 2 diabetes is being increasingly seen in children in the last decade, because of poor diets.  Set your child up for future health by cutting sugar out of their diet.  Parents often tell me they are worried their child won’t have enough energy without sugar in their diet, but this is nothing to worry about.  They will be getting lots of carbohydrates from their fruit and vegetables.  The other worry parents have is about depriving their child of treats.  Children won’t look back on their childhood and think their parents deprived them by not giving them enough sugar.  Children value quality time with their parents, so make that a priority, not sugar!

 

  1. Include some fermented foods in your child’s diet.

Fermented foods are full of good bacteria, so by consuming them, you are giving your child’s gut health an immediate boost.  And remember from my article on the gut-brain connection that brain health is absolutely influenced by gut health.  If your child hasn’t had fermented foods before, introduce them very slowly, or your child could get a belly ache.  If your child tolerates dairy, milk kefir or real yoghurt is a good place to start.  If they are dairy free, go for water kefir, sauerkraut juice or sauerkraut.  I steer away from kombucha for kids as it is made with tea, therefore contains caffeine.  If you make it yourself you can use rooibos tea and make it caffeine free, but make sure you don’t ferment it so much that it becomes alcoholic!

 

  1. Cut down refined carbohydrates.

A lot of kids exist on a diet that is predominantly refined carbohydrate.  Think of the child that has cornflakes with sugar for breakfast, rice crackers for morning tea, a Vegemite sandwich for lunch, a muesli bar for afternoon tea and pasta for dinner.  Eating so many refined carbohydrates is bad for your gut bacteria, as they get starved.  All the refined carbohydrates are digested high up in their digestive system, and there is nothing left for the gut bacteria in the large intestine to eat.  Increase fat and protein in their diet, and replace the refined carbohydrate with fruit and vegetables. My online program has new recipes every week to help you easily make this transition.

 

  1. Consider reducing or removing gluten.

Lots of people are sensitive to gluten, but they may not realise it!  The best way to test is to strictly remove gluten for a month, then reintroduce it and see what happens.  When you cut out gluten, you might find that the headaches you had grown accustomed to magically disappear.  Or that lingering gym injury is suddenly better.  Most people eat so much gluten, they don’t realise that they have inflammation from eating it.  Think of it like a windscreen – when the windscreen is dirty, you never notice a bug landing on it.  When you clean the windscreen (remove the gluten), you suddenly notice every little bug that lands.  ADHD and other health issues are directly related to inflammation.

Cut out the gluten – reduce the inflammation – improve behaviour. 

It’s hard to say why we are getting sensitive to gluten, but I have a few theories.

  • We eat gluten-containing foods 4-5 times a day, so we have overdosed, and now we are sensitive.
  • Grains are heavily sprayed with chemicals, so perhaps it isn’t the gluten we are reacting to, but the agricultural chemicals
  • Our gut health has deteriorated so much due to processed food and too much medicine that we don’t have the right gut bacteria to digest it any more
  • Grains used to be fermented for 24 hours to make a sourdough bread. Now, for economic reasons, we have sped up the baking process, and there is no fermentation and no pre-digestion of the gluten.
  • We also add gluten to lots of foods where it doesn’t belong, just so we can say it contains protein, or to improve the texture.

 

  1. Cut out additives

Food additives are harmful to human health in general and our kids are particularly sensitive.  There is lots of research going back decades about the effect additives have on kids health, particularly behaviour.  Some countries are more proactive than Australia and already insist that warnings go on foods containing some colours, to let parents know that their child’s behaviour will be adversely affected if they eat this food.  Unfortunately, Australia hasn’t prioritised this, and we consumers are still largely in the dark about the harmful effects of additives.  You can learn to scrutinise ingredient lists and ingredient numbers, but I don’t recommend it.  Even the additives we think might be ok, may not be ok in the amount we consume them, or when they are combined with other chemicals.  The much easier thing to do is to move away from processed food and towards real, whole foods.  Then you don’t need to learn about food additives!

 

  1. Be an advocate for your child.

As a parent, you want to do what is best for your child, but there are barriers such as time and money.  I highly recommend my online program “Create cool, calm and cooperative kids” for parents who want to make a positive change to their child’s diet but don’t know where to start.  It is very affordable, as you just pay 2 instalments of $99.  The modules are delivered to your inbox weekly and contain coaching videos, recipes and handouts. There is even a closed Facebook group where you can ask me questions as you go along.  Follow this link to jump onboard…